preface
In 1915, the British poet Robert Graves wrote a poem, ‘‘It’s a Queer
Time.’’ Popularly understood as a lighthearted, topical ballad about the
trauma of trench warfare, the poem sets up a counterpoint between im-
ages of gory battle and of the hallucinatory utopias the second-person
speaker encounters when he loses consciousness. ‘‘It’s hard to know if
you’re alive or dead,’’ the poem opens, ‘‘When steel and fire go roaring
thro’ your head.’’ It’s also hard to know if being ‘‘alive’’ consists of fighting
the war or blacking out. Here is a sample stanza, the third of five:
You’re charging madly at them yelling ‘‘Fag!’’
When somehow something gives and your feet drag.
You fall and strike your head; yet feel no pain
And find . . . . . . . . you’re digging tunnels through the hay
In the Big Barn, ’cause it’s a rainy day.
Oh, springy hay, and lovely beams to climb!
You’re back in the old sailor suit again.
It’s a queer time.∞
Here, the homophobia necessary to fuel masculine violence gives way to
another version of the trench: tunnels in a haystack. The speaker finds
himself back on the farm, where rain, ‘‘springy’’ hay, and wood suggest
life. He also appears to be dressed as a gay icon.
Lest I be accused of reading ‘‘sailor suit’’ and even ‘‘queer’’ anachronis-
tically, let me summarize the other stanzas. All but the first two-line closed
couplet end with the refrain ‘‘It’s a queer time.’’ In the second stanza, the
speaker is wounded (‘‘you’re clutching at your chest,’’ line 5) and astro-
travels to the homosocial Treasure Island, which is some amalgam of
Orientalized Eastern tropical romance (‘‘spice winds blow / To lovely
groves of Mango, quince, and lime—,’’ lines 7–8) and dime-novel west-
ern (‘‘Breathe no good-bye, but ho! for the Red West!,’’ line 9). In the
fourth stanza, when a bomb hits the speaker as he’s sleeping in a trench,
he finds himself ‘‘struggling, gasping, struggling, then . . . hullo! / Elsie
Previous Page Next Page